Author: Tobias Harris
In the latest Far Eastern Economic Review [here], I examine Japan’s leadership deficit. The travails of Taro Aso and, more recently, Ichiro Ozawa, combined with the ascendance of Barack Obama in the United States have left many Japanese with leadership envy.
Prime Minister Aso himself may have a mild case of it: following the recent passage of the Obama administration’s stimulus bill, Mr. Aso admired the speed with which the new U.S. administration acted and lamented that he was unable to do the same. Similarly, in his 2006 book Ozawaism, Mr. Ozawa wrote of Japan as a ‘country without leaders’ and detailed his efforts to train future leaders in his annual workshop.
Messrs. Aso and Ozawa are joined by politicians and journalists from across the political spectrum. They bemoan the country’s ability to produce leaders, leaders like Mr. Obama capable of inspiring people far beyond their nation’s borders instead of serving as the butt of jokes at home and abroad. The foreign press has echoed domestic Japanese sentiment. As Christian Caryl recently asked in Newsweek, why are Japan’s politicians so bad?
There is more than a grain of truth to this notion that Japan has, in the words of Australian academic Aurelia George Mulgan, a ‘leadership deficit’.
If Japan has a leadership deficit, its source likely lies not in the availability of political talent. That was precisely Aurelia George Mulgan’s argument in her 2002 article on the leadership deficit. She suggested that Japan lacks strong leaders as a result of institutional design, not culture or personality. Japan’s prime ministers and cabinets, she argued, were constrained because unlike in other parliamentary systems, they had to contend with strong institutional rivals in the bureaucracy and the backbenches of the LDP.
What is clear is that the LDP is incapable of making the institutional changes that are required itself. If the most charismatic politician in his generation, Koizumi, is incapable of cowing party and bureaucracy, what hope is there for lesser talents? All of which goes to show that Japan’s problems do not lie in its decadent politicians but in its broken institutions. In some way Japan would have had it easier if its problems could be traced to its politicians. There is no shortage of politicians in a democracy. Good institutions are harder to come by.